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A local Civil War story

April 21, 2012
By HOWARD RILEY ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

John Derby has given me copies of letters about Milo Miller and Henry Napoleon Wells, who went off to serve in the Civil War from Saranac Lake.

The letters were found in a desk that had once belonged to Saranac Lake historian John Duquette. John was president of the Saranac Lake Free Library Board of Directors and was active in the establishment of the Adirondack Room, where so many of his great stories are archived today. He died at age 81 in 1998; he was a combat veteran of World War II, serving as a sergeant in the Army Air Force.

Mildred Derby, whose husband Fred was a camp caretaker and a cousin of John Derby's grandfather, Duke, copied the letters in longhand when she was a resident at the DeChantel Apartments on Church Street. (In addition to these general caretaker categories, there existed a situation whereby the owner and the caretaker became "family." One such arrangement occurred when Alix W. Stanley purchased the Waggaman Camp at the southern end of Upper Saranac Lake, and chose to keep the existing caretakers, Fred and Mildred Derby.)

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Saranac Lakers are familiar with Milo Miller who came back from the war and became a leading businessman in Saranac Lake. We have never heard much about his pal, Henry Wells, who joined the Army with him, because he got shot in the shoulder in October 1863 and was healing nicely when he got typhoid fever and died.

The following will be gleaned from more than 30 pages of history, trying to read between the lines, with some pages apparently copies of actual letters written in the summer and fall of 1863. Remember, the chain of events is pieced together and the spelling is original.


Waiting for the baby

"It was the evening of an unusually hot day, the sky looked like a change, rain perhaps, even the birds in the apple tree seemed jubilant at the prospect of cooler weather.

"Outside the cabin sat Henry and his hound dog, Peg, awaiting the birth of his and Polly's child. She had been in labor all night and he hoped it would soon be over.

"It was July 4th, 1863. The country was in a state of anxiety due to the Civil War. Henry had thought a lot about enlisting but he promised Polly he would wait until the arrival of the expected child.

"The sun was rising in back of Mt. Baker when he heard the baby cry, he uttered a sigh of relief.

"Lib came and told him he had a daughter, a wee might of humanity, he hoped she survived, as he wanted a playmate for his son, now age three, who had gone to his Grandmother Wells for a few days in Keene.

"He entered the cabin and was surprised to find Polly so pleased with her daughter. She had has already decided to name her Adeline Carolyn and hoped they could have her properly christened."

"Lib was a very fine woman, an especially good midwife, but a very poor cook. Henry dreaded the next few days he had to endure her cooking. She offered him a bowl of porridge, which he accepted, and ate with Polly. They were very lucky to have a good cow, it helped a lot. He had sold the calf to Steve."


The men enlist in the Army

"Next day Milo came by and shook his hand. He knew what he was thinking. Now they could make plans to enlist. Henry could not forget the $300 enlistment pay, the many things it would buy and the home it would help build.

"He loved Polly a great deal, but she had a sharp tongue and a sharper eye. She was insanely jealous of every woman that comes to town. He hoped the baby had her looks and ability but not her disposition. They sat hand in hand when Henry brought up the subject up again. 'Polly the time has come for Milo and I to think seriously of enlisting.'

"I know you don't want to shirk your duty, slavery is a terrible thing. Do you and Milo plan to go to Plattsburgh soon? Yes, we would like to go on the [stage] return trip this week. It was a trip of more than two days with stop overs at Frenches by the falls and in Keeseville.

"After the formalities of enlisting they were given a leave of ten days to take care of any business at home. A bad storm started on the way home and the frightened horses had the coach lurching from side to side.

"The ten days passed swiftly, it was getting late and they hated to bring this day to a close but they must rise early for Henry and Milo to take the stage. Polly shed a tear and a sob escaped her lips. The thought of the long winter months and many lonely hours she would spend without her husband were heart breaking. The baby started to fret. She got up to change and nurse her, when Henry heard and wanted his daughter; she placed her in their bed between them. And she was soon fast asleep.

"Polly could not sleep and was glad when light broke through the window. She arose to fix the family breakfast. It was September 3rd when they kissed their wives and children goodbye.

"Polly looked especially nice in a Navy blue dress. Her dark hair and eyes were lovely to look at under a bonnet of blue to match her dress.

"Polly had no idea she would never see her husband again."


(Continued next week)



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